Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Board Game Review - Entdecker

Sometimes, it's really hard for me to tell whether or not I'm going to like a game until after I play it. I mean, I try to approach every game with an open mind, but usually, I can finish reading the rules and know whether I'm going to love a game or hate it. But every now and then, a game leaves me with no idea whatsoever.

Entdecker was like that. It's a game of exploration in a fictional part of the Caribbean, which should make it pretty cool. That's a pretty sweet theme. The art is very nice, and there's even a little wooden pawn that looks vaguely like a sailing ship (it also looks vaguely resembles a sombrero, which really has nothing to do with the game, except you may find yourself saying, 'it's your turn to move the hat').

But then you read the rules, and for one thing, they're a little confusing, and for another, you do an awful lot of exploring uncharted areas and no time shooting stuff at all. Now this pretty game with the cool theme and the Mexican headgear looks like it might just be a pure, non-violent efficiency exercise, with all the fascination of the owner's manual for a 97 Skylark. Hell, it might just be Euro Tetris.

And then finally, after all that, you just knuckle down and play it, and you realize that Entdecker is a pretty damned cool game. You and your opponents take turns moving the explorer's ship and discovering island in the middle of the ocean, then claiming them and sending your scouts to hunt for wild berries and coconuts. (Really - you have to discover produce.)

At first, it can be difficult to see all the depth in Entdecker. Once you play a couple turns, though, you'll begin to see all the different paths to victory, and the way different strategies can provide different rewards, and how the island-conquering warlord might be defeated by the nickel-and-dime little guy who snags all the best shrubs, and they both might lose to the dedicated explorer who hunts down all the rare and valuable waterfalls.

OK, so you've read this far and you're thinking, 'when does this get awesome, again?' And you're right, from the description, this sounds like less excitement than the music in a department store elevator. But twist it and look at it from a different angle, and the kick-ass will shine through.

For starters, there's a ton of gambling. You can bet on the sure thing, but it'll cost you, and it might never be as rewarding as the long-shot. And there's lots of countering other players - steal their islands, steal their fruit, steal their waterfalls, and before you know it, everyone at the table is gunning for you like you Tony Soprano put a price on your head. The game also includes all kinds of planning, and strategy, and careful tactical maneuvers meant to block everyone else and get you paid. For a game about sailing in a hat and hunting up wild fruit, Entdecker has a whole hell of a lot going on.

Sadly, this review isn't going to do any more to tell you if you ought to buy Entdecker than you could get if you read the box. Euro fans might dig it, though there is a healthy amount of luck. Players of violent games might like it, because there are pirates, and there's lots of the interaction and daring risk-taking that make their favorite games so interesting. The theme might not expressly mention bloodletting, but there's no way you spend this much time sailing the Caribbean and nobody gets killed. So in a pinch, we can call it a man's game.

I like Entdecker. It's very cool. The art is pretty, the theme is exploration and discovery, and the rules practically beg you to take wild risks and hose your friends. It's enjoyable and interactive and, best of all, fun. The only question I have left is, what the hell does Entdecker mean?


2-4 players

Lots of strategy, tactics, planning and risk-taking
Very pretty
Cool theme plays out well
Quick-start rules explain while you play your first game

Some tweaky components decisions seem like an excuse to overcomplicate simple tasks
Doesn't look like it should be as cool as it is

Dogstar Games is carrying Entdecker, and not only can you save a bunch of money on it, the shipping is free!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Board Game Review - Bridgetown Races

When I was a young man just out of college, I spent a winter in Portland, Oregon. It was effing cold, was the main thing I remember, and there were a ton of bridges. So I have no problem believing that when the creators of Bridgetown Races needed a city with lots of bridges where they could hold races, Portland was the logical choice. With the Willamette River running right through the middle of the city, they had to put in a buttload of bridges just so I could get to work. Of course, since these were drawbridges, any time I was late to work, the bridge would be up in the air.

Happily, in Bridgetown Races, the bridges are never up. That's convenient, because there's a flag on every bridge, and you have to race your ass off to go pick up one of each color. You can only pick up a yellow flag, for instance, if you're in a taxi, and a white flag can only be nabbed if you're hoofing it. The blue flag is a bitch, because the only way to get that one is in a streetcar going across the Steel Bridge. But it could be worse - the damned bridge could be up, and then you would be screwed.

When you open the box to play Bridgetown Races, you're not going to be instantly amazed at the beauty and wonder of the stuff in the box. Instead, you might wonder if you're about to play a game as underwhelming as the cartoony art and slightly hideous color palette. Wooden pawns and plastic flags in a rainbow of fruit flavors might mean a delicious sugary breakfast cereal, but they rarely indicate a thrilling game.

But just play it once, and you won't care if the art is on the bland side. This game will make your head swim, as you try to plan a turn with a motorcycle, a car and a pair of roller blades that will manage to score the orange flag on Burnside and the purple on Hawthorne. If you don't watch the other players, they might just grab the flags before you can get there, and if you don't count the spaces just right, you'll wind up one space short of the flag you need in the wrong kind of vehicle.

Another thing that you can't see from the uninspiring graphics is how fast-paced and exciting this game is. You might even want to turn on some high-energy rave music (ecstasy pills are optional), because you'll really feel like you're hauling ass. The more people you add to this game, the more frenetic it will feel, with the chaos factor rocketing like your grandpa's heart rate at a titty bar.

The whole thing is over in half an hour, maybe less, but that just means this is a short game. That does NOT mean it's a filler. Fillers are light games that require minimal effort. Bridgetown Races demands that you pay attention, and while it goes fast, you'll need a lot of brainpower to stay ahead.

The graphics may not be top-notch, but they're really not that bad. They're especially forgivable when you see that Bridgetown Races is a lean, mean, fast-action racing game that's just a big fat pile of fun. This is the best game Gryphon Games has produced yet, and if they keep making them this good, maybe I can overlook all the crappy Reiner reprints.


2-4 players

Fast and exciting
Much deeper than it seems it should be
Tactics, planning, and a good long-term strategy are all required to win
None of the bridges are up

Not as visually awesome as it could have been

You could probably buy Bridgetown Races at your local game store, but you know what I want you to do. I want you to get this game, because it's a blast, and I want you to get it from Noble Knight:

Friday, November 26, 2010

Toy-Slash-Game Review - Broadsides & Boarding Parties

There are gamers for whom a game is only a good game if it's a mental exercise. If they're not stretching their Mensa muscles and proving their intellectual superiority, these gamers cannot have fun (if you ask me, they're probably not that good at having fun, period). For those gamers, I recommend more fiber.

For those gamers who, like me, regularly use games as an excuse to play with toys, Hasbro made Broadsides & Boarding Parties. This is a game that is basically a box full of toys with a few rules to make it seem legitimate. It's like playing with toy soldiers when you and your little brother come up with rules that incorporate Lincoln Log buildings and shooter marbles.

The main feature of this humongous toy pretending to be a game is the pair of plastic ships. You get two sailing ships, one to be a pirate and one to be the Spanish galleon, and these puppies are honking big. If you weren't too particular, you could wear them as shoes. Plus you get a mess of plastic sailors and pirates, cannons that actually poke out through little holes in the sides of the ship, and a beautiful game board depicting a completely fictional section of the Caribbean. You have little plastic ship models that you'll maneuver around the fake sea, and cards that you use to plan your moves and try to fake out your opponent.

Broadsides & Boarding Parties is composed of two different phases, predictably broken into the broadsides part and the boarding parties part. It's not particularly difficult. You sail your ships around, firing cannons at each other, and then your ships bang into each other and you send your pirates over the rails to capture the enemy captain. The broadsides part of the game is played out on the map, but when your ships finally tangle and it comes down to swashbuckling swordplay, you push the ships next to each other and actually have your plastic pirates climbing around on the decks of these gigantic ships.

This game is undeniably fun, unless you're one of those fun-sucking sandbags who insists that every game be intellectually difficult. You're going to sail in circles and shoot at each other, then as masts come crashing down and water starts flooding into the cargo hold, you set grapples and swing over to the enemy vessel, cutlass between your teeth and blood on your mind. If you can't have fun doing that, then your imagination must have packed up and moved to Alaska, where it is now dating Sarah Palin's daughter and trying to get her knocked up again.

Two key skills are required to do well during the broadsides part of the game - luck and clairvoyance. If you can sucker your opponent into zigging when he should have zagged, you can shoot him when he can't shoot back. Make a poor calculation, however, and you could find yourself floating around like a waterlogged rubber ducky. Fortunately, even if you play poorly, you can still do pretty well here, just by being lucky. There's an absolutely amazing amount of die-rolling here, and you might just blast the crap out of your enemy with two dice while he splashes all around you with five. Brilliant maneuvering will get you a statistical advantage, but luck can win the day.

To win the boarding parties portion of the game, you only need luck. There's virtually no cleverness required. You move, you roll dice, the low roller loses sailors. This part is a blast, because you can practically see Errol Flynn swinging over on the rigging and doing all kinds of violence. Unfortunately, Errol has about as much chance of taking a cutlass to the kidney as he does of surviving the fight, so it's a little arbitrary. Sure is fun, though!

One thing I should mention - this game is pretty damned old. Not like Monopoly old, but it's no spring chicken. It's one of those games Hasbro put out in the mid 80s, alongside Shogun and Fortress: America and Axis & Allies. That means I was in high school when it was first printed, and now my kids are in high school, so this is an old game. It's frightfully expensive, assuming you can find a copy at all. And considering it's basically a bunch of toy pirates with some incredibly basic rules, you may not be able to justify the cost, especially if you can only enjoy games if they come with a minimum of 27 wooden cubes in at least four different colors.

There are never going to be tournament games of Broadsides & Boarding Parties, and there will never be national player rankings. It's not a deep or smart game, and it's not supposed to be. What it is supposed to do, it does brilliantly. It doesn't pretend to be a brainy game. It stands tall and says, 'I'm a toy, dammit!' and it makes it work. Buzz-killing abstracts be damned - real men play games where people die.


2 players

Pros:Add Image
Huge, awesome ships
Plastic pirates and cannons
Stunning board and simple rules
A goofy amount of fun, especially for grown men who play with toys
A decent amount of bluffing and maneuvering in the beginning of the game

Woefully rare and painfully expensive
Almost completely luck in the last part of the game

I didn't expect to find a copy of this game anywhere, unless they were overpriced at eBay, but my newest sponsor, Noble Knight Games, has one right here:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Card Game Review - Botswana

I think I've finally figured out a little something about Doctor Reiner Knizia. I used to wonder what kind of doctor he is. Is he a foot doctor? Is he a neurosurgeon? Or maybe he's just an over-qualified dentist? But I think I have come up with a plausible answer - he's a doctor of environmental studies. Clearly, he understands just how life in the African savanna really works.

And to educate those of us who did not know about the circle of life in the sweeping plains of the subcontinent, he created Botswana. Not the country - that was already there. He may have donated a hospital wing or something, but I'm pretty sure the country existed before Reiner showed up. No, he made a game called Botswana that will teach the youth of the world about the ebb and flow of the African animal kingdom in the heart of darkest Africa (please note that Botswana is not actually very dark - it's quite sunny).

In order to focus the educational potential like a laser, Dr. K only included five kinds of animals. Botswana has more, maybe as many as nine or ten, but we just get elephants, zebras, rhinos, lions and leopards (the limited animal count may have been due to the fact that there are five plastic animals of each kind, and they didn't want to have to figure out where to score a few thousand plastic vervet monkeys). And to further distill our education, rather than one of those dull, unimaginative games created for grade-school teachers, this is actually an abstract card game.

There are six cards for each animal (30 total, in case you suck at math), ranked zero through five. You take out a few, and pass the rest out to everyone equally. Then you take turns playing one card and grabbing one little plastic animal. You can put down any card you want, and take any animal you want. At the end of the round, each animal you grabbed is worth however many points are on the last card played with that animal's picture.

When I first read the rules for Botswana, I had two thoughts:

Thought #1: "Oh, great, another crappy Reiner game."

Thought #2: "What the hell does this have to do with Botswana?"

But then I played, and I realized that Botswana is actually a pretty cool game. Sure, it's a Reiner game, but it ain't bad. My daughter liked it a lot. She also won by a wide margin. I kind of suck at card games, and this game would be best played by someone who is very good at games like Hearts and Spades, two games I lose nearly every time I play.

There's an almost overwhelming amount of strategy to employ in Botswana. You get your hand and have to decide right off which animals you want to see become very valuable, and which you want to destroy. Then you try to con your fellow players into taking the ones you're going to ruin, while attempting to grab up all the ones you mean to make rich. This is not anywhere near as easy as it sounds, and it doesn't really sound easy. Because all the other players are trying to do the same thing, and if you're playing with my daughter, at least one of them is far better at this than you are.

Timing is critical. Because there comes a point when the game could end at any moment, you're never sure if you can afford to play the low elephant or if you should play the high zebra (high zebras, incidentally, are how zebra-mule hybrids got started). If you play the wrong card, you could hand over the game on a silver platter. Play the right card at the wrong time, and again, you could hose yourself. But time your plays perfectly, and grab the right animals at the right time, and you'll completely destroy your opponents. Kind of like my daughter.

So how is this educational? OK, I lied, it's not. It's an abstract game. You could swap out the animals for flavored condoms, and have the same exact game (and potentially, a much better time afterward). The only reason this game has anything to do with the country is that both have animals, only in the card game, they're not real (it would have been incredibly difficult to fit 25 actual animals in the box, and it would have smelled absolutely horrible). But it is still a pretty cool card game. Just don't try to figure out what it has to do with Africa.

I guess I still don't know what kind of doctor Reiner is. He might be a proctologist - he seems to make a lot of games that stink - but something tells me his work has a lot more to do with math in a classroom than sick people on a gurney. But I do at least know that Botswana is a fun game, whatever Dr. K studied for his big, shiny degree.


2-5 players

Simple mechanics create a disproportionately impressive amount of strategy
Plays fast, but still challenging
Decent art, very nice cards, and a box full of plastic animals
Great for families

Theme? What theme?

Noble Knight is carrying Botswana, and you can save a couple bucks, too.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Note About Advertising

If you see the little 'Because I'm a Whore' box to the left of the main column, you'll notice three small, square ads. Those are there because I'm a whore. Well, not all of them are explicitly there for whoring, but I'll explain.

First, there's Dogstar Games. I talk about these guys all the time, because for the last couple years, they've been hooking me up with the review copies I could never get otherwise. Dozens of the games I've reviewed at Drake's Flames have come from Dogstar, and because I'm a whore for free games, I promote the hell out of them. If it weren't for Dogstar Games, you would have been unable to read about games like Horus Heresy, Runewars, Galaxy Trucker and a whole hell of a lot more. See, the downside to all my hilarious ranting (or irritating and juvenile complaining, depending on who's reading) is that lots and lots of publishers would rather I never even had the opportunity to review their games. Because of Dogstar Games, I'm able to get the review copies I need and still be honest about how I feel about them. Most reviewers do not have that luxury, so I'm very grateful to Dogstar.

The next ad down is from Noble Knight Games. These guys have an incredible web store, with tons of stuff that's out of print or obscure. They have an awesome inventory of new stuff, and bucket loads of old stuff. Like Dogstar Games, they are there because I am a whore. They're a new sponsor, and they're setting me up with roleplaying games and CCGs when the publishers blow me off. Noble Knight got me Gamma World, which I never would have reviewed otherwise, and they hooked me up with The Burning Wheel, which I'll be reviewing in a week or so. So if you're looking for games and accessories, do me a favor and check out Noble Knight.

Finally, there's the Project Wonderful ad at the bottom of the box. That one is not there because I'm a whore. That one is there half because I'm curious, and half because I think it might have something readers might want to see. It's almost like a public service announcement, but without Erik Estrada telling you not to smoke because it makes your hair fall out.

The first reason I dropped in a Project Wonderful ad is because I was curious to see what kind of money you can earn with one of those little ad boxes. You see them all over the Internet, and they seem like an interesting concept. People are either publishers or advertisers, and they either carry ads or they sell ads (often both). You bid on these ad boxes, and there are thousands of them, possibly millions. Really impressive sites with tens of thousands of readers can make ten or fifteen bucks a day from those ad boxes. Tiny sites buried in a back corner of the Internet, like, you know, this one, are lucky to earn a penny a day. So experimentally, I've discovered that I need each person reading this site to tell about seven hundred people about Drake's Flames if I want to make more than a nickel a week.

The other thing, though, is that there are a few cool places out there in the Internet series of pipes that I would have missed. I found a soft-porn interactive comic site read by adult actresses, a few oddly fascinating online games, and a handful of interesting webcomics. That ad box is set up to let me approve or reject every ad, and so I've been able to dump anyone with an obnoxious flashing ad, slimy quasi-bankers trying to rip off people with bad credit, and a metric assload of crappy Etsy sites selling jewelry made by nerdy housewives who think they're original because they fashion earrings from bathroom tiles. If you see an ad over there, you know I've checked it out. I'm not sending you to get a free credit report or a dozen magazine subscriptions. I know who's buying my ad space, and they're always sites I think had some merit, even if that merit is being slightly amusing.

I'm not looking to add more advertisements to Drake's Flames, though I don't rule out the possibility. If you know someone who really wants to pimp something, and if it's cool, have them drop me a line. If it's a publisher who could use a little bit of promo, I'll probably run their ad for free. If it's the coolest thing since plastic miniatures, I might even make the ad myself. And if you know someone who wants to give me free games in exchange for ad space, for God's sake write me now. I mean right this second.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Humongous Game Review - Battle Masters

A few weeks ago, I was doing a little cleaning in my closet. Way at the back of the closet is a tiny cubbyhole under the stairs. If my house was empty, it would be hard to reach, but I've lived in my house almost ten years, so finding the back of that particular closet consists of wading hip-deep through a decade's worth of discarded exercise equipment and old dog beds. It was herculean, is what I'm trying to say.

Anyway, while I was under the stairs, I remembered that I had a box full of games under there. Because, yes, I need more games. These games were stored more than six years ago, so it was kind of like finding buried treasure, except that in this case, the treasures were games, and they weren't buried under dirt, they were buried under the VCR, old Playstation 2 games and an incredible number of couch pillows that did not leave when we got rid of the old couch.

The real hidden treasure in that rediscovered box was an old game called Battle Masters. I traded for this puppy a long time ago, because I wanted an incredibly unwieldy game in a box the size of a lifeboat with literally hundreds of plastic miniatures and a map that small children could use to create a pillow fort. I played it when I got it, but for some unfathomable reason, I decided to put it in an even larger box and store it for later. Fast forward half a decade, and I run across it while searching for the Lost Ark (apparently the American government found out how hard it is to look under my staircase, and decided to move the Ark after Indiana Jones found it).

Come to think of it, the reason I initially stored the game is not that hard to fathom. In fact, once I pulled it out, dusted it off, and played it again, I was reminded why I stored it - it's not a very good game. Sure, there's a ton of plastic, and a plastic mat the size of a child's bedsheet (that's not an exaggeration - it's over 5 feet long). But it's about as deep as a puddle of warm dog piss, and so painfully random that it is exceptionally difficult to have a good time playing it.

In Battle Masters, two players set up on the floor (because just about nobody has a big enough table to hold the mat) and set legions of plastic warriors against each other in a blood-soaked fantasy throw-down. It's obviously licensed from Games Workshop, with chaos warriors and beast men fighting the warriors of the Empire, and there's even a big tower that you can claim and rain arrows down on your foes. It looks so incredibly cool. Too bad it blows.

Battle Masters is one of the earlier games to use the skulls-and-shields, Stephen-Baker method of conflict resolution. You may have seen this rather popular game mechanic in a little game called HeroScape. Only where HeroScape is a brilliant game with depth and strategy and tactical genius, Battle Masters is barely fit to be a child's toy. The dice thing is great, but the game is a waste of time.

The reason Battle Masters is less fun than just playing with army men is because of the cards you use to figure out whose turn it is. You have a single deck of cards, and these cards have pictures of all the various guys in the game. If you pull the card with the knights, then the Empire guy can move his knights. Pull the ogre, and the Chaos player can send his ogre marauding and killing and trampling. Pull the goblins, and they're probably stuck behind the river and have to skip their turn entirely because the beastmen are in the way, only the beastmen also can't move because they're blocked in by the orcs.

Sooner or later, you're going to have one player sitting on his hands while the other player takes six or seven turns in a row. It doesn't matter how well you shuffle, either. It's just the odds. Give the game enough time, and eventually the Empire player is going to have to just watch while the chaos knights and evil archers run through the knights and men-at-arms like poop through a goose.

Using a completely random draw to determine the next player turns a lightly strategic game with objectively awesome pieces into a frustrating chance to watch the game play itself. It doesn't even feel like you're in charge of anything. You're playing with your toys, and you don't even get to say which ones you'll play with! No wonder this was hidden under six years of retired baby clothes.

But now that I've got it out of the closet, Battle Masters is staying out. My daughter and I have ideas for how we can turn it into an actual game, instead of a stupid way to play with action figures, and once we nail down our house-rule rewrite, I think it will actually be fun. And if it turns out to still be a dud, I can always list it as trade fodder, or maybe just use the archers and horses to make chop-shop centaurs.

Besides, even if it's a dud, the stuff in this box is just plain amazing. More than a hundred cool minis, a fully three-dimensional plastic tower, and a plastic game board that could double as a tablecloth - not to mention the piles of cards, flags, terrain tiles and other stuff in the box - make Battle Masters fun as hell even if all I do is set it up in the middle of the living room floor. It needs new rules, very badly, but for a grown man using games as an excuse to play with toys, Battle Masters is like a time machine to my youth. Or maybe like discovering a lost warehouse full of arcane treasures, but instead of priceless artifacts of mystical power, you find dusty plastic soldiers and all the pictures you took off the fridge after the kids finished third grade.


2 players

Holy crap, there's a ton of cool stuff in this box
A decent implementation of the skulls-and-shields dice thing
Neat art and cool plastic - just plain pretty

Playing the game reminds me why I stored it in the first place

I don't have the foggiest idea where you could find a copy of Battle Masters. Try eBay, if you just plain have to have it. Or just break out your Ninja Turtles action figures and play with those.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Board Game Review - Guardians of Graxia

If you want evidence that board games are not like video games, you just have to look at Guardians of Graxia. Or, you know, pretty much any other video game, except that in this case, there's a video game and a board game version of the same game. So comparing Grand Theft Auto and Agricola is probably not as good an indicator, though it does make it pretty easy to tell which is not a board game.

The video game of Guardians of Graxia is pretty damned cool. You summon your guys using cards, which you pay for with mana, which you get from controlling land. It's a tactical wargame with a fantasy theme, and it's fun. There are more 3D animations than are strictly needed, and that makes it slower than tectonic plate movement on my computer, but it's a fun game, anyway. You can download it and install it from Gamers Gate, where it will set you back a mere ten dollars.

The board game version is pretty much exactly the same game, but instead of having a computer handle all the math, now you have to do it yourself. It's still fun, as long as you have the patience to do all the adding that the computer was doing for you. Which, unfortunately, means that it's a pain in the ass.

It's still fun, though. You use cardboard tiles to build this big board, with the tiles offset to make a sort of fake hex grid. The tiles have plains and villages and cities and swamps and maybe a little piece of New Orleans that broke off after Katrina. Then you summon your cards onto these tiles and move them the way you would if you were playing a miniatures game, only the cards are the miniatures, and they all have these different abilities that tell you how they fight. Between orcs and dragons, knights and elves, and lots of other refugees from a D&D world, you've got a pretty standard fantasy world, and lots of choices.

But unfortunately, all these guys have to be different, and that means they all have wildly different attack, defense, magic, life, and other stuff you'll have to track as you play. There's an entire board separate from everything else that you use to track all the adding and subtracting, the way you would use an abacus, only not quite as pretty (unless it's an ugly abacus). Here's an example, to let you see how much adding you'll do:

Let's say you start your turn with 35 mana. Then you summon a band of wolf riders, which costs, say, 8 mana, so you move your mana marker down. Then you cast a spell that lets you move that guy, and it costs 7, so you slide your mana counter down again. Then some orc guys move, and they attack, and then you do a bunch of adding and subtracting and playing cards that add and subtract and cost mana and add battle value and reduce the other guy's mana value and maybe add some mana for you and then you play some other cards that add battle value or subtract battle value, only these don't cost mana, but they do make you slide your battle value counter all over, and then you look at the scores and go, 'screw this, let's play Parcheesi.'

As you can see from this example, there's a bit of math. It's not hard, but holy macaroni is there a lot of it. Add 3, then add 2, then subtract 1 and add 3 and a whole lore more, and when you're done, that will be your shoe size minus your age.

If the math doesn't scare you off Guardians of Graxia, it's a pretty damned fun game. It's definitely better than the Panzer General games, because it's not as complicated (which is saying something about the Panzer General games) and it's easier to maneuver on the hex grid. You can even play it solo, if you don't mind keeping track of all that math for both sides. It's got some very nice illustrations, though the graphic designers seem to have been the lowest bidders, and it even has six plastic miniatures that you absolutely never need to use for any reason whatsoever.

On the other hand, if the complicated parts of the game annoy you, and your computer was created in the last two or three years, you might be a lot better off with the PC version. It's fun, it's just as pretty, and the best part is that the computer does the annoying math for you.

So now that I've finished that, let me get a little preachy.

Look, video games are not board games. Board games have to be simpler, because we're not all walking calculators. There are board games that provide just as much tactical depth as the Petroglyph games, but do it with more abstraction and less calculation. I'm fine with a little bonus or penalty here and there, but a good board game designer could have taken Guardians of Graxia (and the Panzer General games at the same time) and created something fun and fast and smart and deep. It doesn't need to be Reiner Knizia simple, but it would be great if these games felt more clean. As it stands, the video games are a blast, because Petroglyph is a video game company, but the board games are sloppy, because Petroglyph is a video game company.

Guardians of Graxia is an entertaining, tactically smart game, no matter the format. The board game certainly makes more sense if you can wade through the math and want to talk about beer selections with your opponent while you play, but if you're really just here for the game, get the PC version and let your computer do the work for you.

Of course, if your computer is as old as mine, it might actually be faster to just play the board game. I'm still waiting to see if I killed the dragon, and I started last Tuesday.


1 or 2 players

Lots of tactical depth
Very cool art (not counting the rather weak graphic design)
Tons of replay factor

Math - not hard, but lots of it
Defensive strategies are doomed to failure
A few poor design choices make the game unnecessarily more difficult to play

If you're the kind of person who likes games that make you think, and where playing well means you win more often, Guardians of Graxia might be for you. Noble Knight Games has it:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Board Game Review - Forbidden Island

Let's say, like me, that you have a child with whom you enjoy playing games. Let's further say that this child is a very bad sport. Let's further say that when you invade this child's home port and steal her resources, she breaks down and cries before assuming a countenance darker than the inside of a cow's asshole, and may or may not slam the door to her bedroom in a fit of rage that makes you wonder if it's possible that she might have been adopted, even though you were there when she was born.

In this unhappy case, you really need a cooperative game. In a cooperative game, nobody will try to swipe your demon child's sheep, or force her to discard, or destroy her capital city. Everyone teams up against a common foe, which is great because nobody really wants to be around when your unholy spawn has a teenage angst fit after she assumes that you hate her if you manage to build track through her coal-rich mountains. And if you want a quick, tense cooperative game with amazing visual and tactile appeal, you should try Forbidden Island.

In Forbidden Island, the players are a team of adventurers who have just discovered the location of a mystical island. This island holds four wondrous treasures, but it has been booby-trapped by the ancients. As soon as you set down, the island begins to sink beneath the sea, and you must race against time to gather the fabulous treasures and escape with your lives. That's a pretty exciting story, if you ask me. It would make a kick-ass movie. It could star some professional-wrestler-turned-action-movie-icon, and have lots of harrowing scenes of narrow escapes. It might also need naked women (but then, any movie could be better if it had naked women).

The game plays a lot like Pandemic, except that it's not anywhere near as much work. You have to collect cards that match the treasures, travel to the tile where you can swap those cards for the artifact, and then after you get all four, escape to the helicopter pad. And every turn, you're flipping cards that flip the tiles. Flip a tile once, it's flooded. Flip a flooded tile, and it sinks into the ocean forever. Eventually this entire island is going to be underwater. Hopefully John Cena and the naked girl can get off the island first.

Turns go incredibly fast. You'll do three things, draw two treasure cards, then flip some cards to figure out what sinks. At first, the island sinks fairly slow, but it speeds up pretty quick. Happily, you also collect what you need pretty fast, so it works out. In fact, in every game we've played, we were down to the wire. This gorgeous little game plays in fifteen minutes and still manages to get your heart racing, at least for the first half-dozen games.

Forbidden Island became an instant favorite at my house. We've played it five or six times now, and enjoyed the hell out of it every time. By comparison, we played Pandemic twice before I packed it up and shipped it to my father, who I hope has had more fun with it than we did. Many of the mechanics in Forbidden Island can be found in Pandemic - different character abilities that interact with each other, balancing forward progress with the need to slow down the advancing doom, and passing cards between players to get the right sets collected. But where Pandemic requires a great deal of long-term thinking and very careful planning, Forbidden Island plays fast and exciting and a little zany.

Of course, being this similar to Pandemic means that it's also prone to the worst thing about cooperative games - head jackass syndrome, where one person tells everyone else what to do on their turns. Fortunately, we've discovered that if we all just do whatever the daughter tells us, we can still win most of the time, play a family game, and nobody winds up wondering if they will be killed in their sleep. Everybody wins, even if we lose.

I can't emphasize enough how attractive Forbidden Island is. The art is so amazing that I want to visit the place, even if it is about to sink beneath the waves (I especially want to visit if that naked girl is going to be there, but I would probably not survive to the end of the movie. I would end up dying to create tension, and make people wonder how Dwayne Johnson is going to get the naked girl off the island). The treasures are wonderfully sculpted and just plain cool, especially the fire treasure that looks like a Ring Pop.

There's an awful lot to love about Forbidden Island, even if you're not trying to deal with a teenager who hates having to compete. It's light and fast and exciting, with absolutely stunning art and fun pieces. You can pull the game out of the closet, set up and play, all while you're waiting for the pizza guy. The end is down to the wire in most cases, and it scales well regardless of the number of players. It might stale over time, but if it does, give it a couple months and you'll be looking forward to another visit. You and Jesse Venture and a naked girl would have a blast.


2-6 players

So damned pretty
Tense and fast
Fun cooperative game that you can finish in twenty minutes

Might get dull after a few games

If you run over to Noble Knight Games, you can get Forbidden Island for just 14 bucks. That's money well spent, let me tell you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

RPG Review - D&D Gamma World

Roleplaying games have a long, solid tradition of being ridiculous. Hell, just look at D&D - the ludicrous variety of monsters should be enough to tip off any reader that any attempt at reality was thrown out a long time ago, leaving us populating underground lairs with landsharks and floating eyeballs. Not to mention the fact that goblins don't poop, as evidenced by the fact that 90% of dungeons are home to hundreds of goblins, but no toilets.

As you grow up, though, many people start to wander more towards the kinds of serious games that stretch their ability to communicate, pose difficult ethical questions, and kill a much narrower range of victims. There are games I've played that could actually happen. They're rare, but still, they're out there.

Then you have people who go the other way, people who say, 'killing giant purple man-bugs is fine, I suppose, but I wish I could play something a little silly.' Playing blue-skinned elves or bearded midgets is just too damned serious. They want to play plants who look like cockroaches. Those people want to play Gamma World.

The newest version of Gamma World is one of the goofiest things I've ever seen. Cat people who manipulate gravity, giant yetis, and people made out of stone - and those are just the PCs. You can jump right past the militant raccoons and psychotic rabbits, and dwell on the absurdity of the yexil. When I showed a picture of this winged lion with insect manidbles to my son, he asked, in a tone he might have used to ask if the house had turned into a glacial ice cap, 'are those lasers coming out of his eyes?'

Yes, son. They are. Laser eyes.

Gamma World has always stood as one of my most absurd memories of early roleplaying games. The explanation for the setting requires more than a suspension of disbelief. It requires a willingness to leave all logic at the door.

In the year 2012, the Hadron Supercollider managed to seriously screw the pooch. Somehow, it broke the plane of reality and thousands of multiverses were torn asunder, and then slapped back on top of each other so that they all existed in the same place. In many worlds, nuclear war had devastated the planet, and in many others, the Rangers had actually won a World Series. Somehow, all these wacky alternate universes ended up creating Gamma Terra, a world in which a swarm of rats could fuse into a single entity and wear armor made from long underwear and discarded refrigerator magnets.

It should go without saying that the roleplaying experience in Gamma World is not intended to be particularly deep. You walk into a room and kill every mutant badger and four-foot mosquito you can see, then root through their belongings for anything that aliens might have created. It's actually more shallow than Dungeons and Dragons. However, if you can go into the game with a sense of humor, it is entirely possible to have a good time.

The rules are very easy. Since this is technically D&D Gamma World, it uses the basic rules from 4th Edition, but stripped down for quick access. Instead of a 300 page tome with at least 30 pages of tables and charts, the actual rules for playing the game are about 80 pages. There are no core rules, players guides, or monster manuals. There is one book, and it's easy to read, with lots and lots of pictures. In case you're not familiar with D&D, the system is very easy - add up your bonuses, roll a d20, and see if you hit. But instead of just beating armor class, you might have to overcome fortitude or reflex or will, mostly because most everyone has some bizarre mutation that can melt minds, or create gravity wells, or shoot ice cubes like a drink dispenser in a fast food restaurant.

Another separation from rational thought occurs when you examine the way these mutations come and go. The players have access to mutations that might be there one minute and gone the next. One day you have poisonous claws, and the next you can see in the dark. This is made possible thanks to the alpha mutation cards, a deck that comes in the box, and at regular intervals, players discard the ones they have and pull more. There's also a deck of omega tech, stuff made by aliens and futuristic civilizations and maybe that nerdy guy from the James Bond movies, and players can draw these every now and then, too.

If I had one real beef with Gamma World, it would be these cards. See, players can create their own decks, so they have more control over what they're drawing, but only if they go out and buy booster packs of overpriced cards. That's right, it's a roleplaying game that wants you to do some blind purchase, CCG style. That stinks, if you ask me. What really stinks is that some of the booster cards are really cool - the base set might give you the ability to find a lost sock in an empty dryer, where the booster cards allow you to manipulate time and space to turn some mutant swine into a throw pillow. If you really want to build a great deck of alpha mutations for yourself, you have to go drop a bunch of money on these cards.

On the other hand, in a game with all the seriousness of clowns getting out of a VW Bug, the two decks of cards do make for some wacky fun. When you finally defeat the rabid rose bush and get to search the planter, it's a great reward to get to pull a couple pieces of bizarre super-tech that will let you turn brains into tapioca or start levitating around the room. But to my surprise, the part my kids liked the most was the ancient trash.

A rather long table gives 100 pieces of discarded crap that players might find, and my kids willingly jumped right past the omega tech cards for a chance to score a box of cake mix or an electric razor. They would forfeit all the really great treasure for a few rolls on this random chart of stupid crap, and some of it, they even used. My son found a stocking cap, for example, which he pulled over the camera sensors of a death-dealing robot, causing it to veer out of control and crash into a huge piece of machinery, creating a massive fireball of destruction. And he was then disappointed to have lost the hat.

It helps considerably that the box comes with eight different scenario maps, with are all used in the sample adventure at the back of the rules. The game also comes with a bunch of flat counters to represent all the monsters in the rules, which makes running battles that much more entertaining. The character sheets practically walk you through rolling up a hero, and all in all, this is just a really easy game to play.

Unfortunately, it also appears to be almost completely unsupported. As is almost always the case with Wizards of the Coast, they pour copious resources into D&D and Magic, leaving just about everything else to thrash around a while before dying an early death. The only support material for Gamma World that you can even buy right now are the booster packs of cards. There are a couple expansions planned, recreating a couple of the classic modules from way back in the day, but I can't get them now. And a game this completely goofy is not inspiring me to create my own adventures, so I fear we won't be playing it again until Famine in Far-Go hits the street.

I can't really bash Gamma World for being stupid. It's like complaining about Vegas having too much gambling or NASCAR having too many car wrecks. If you're hoping to get something out of Gamma World besides pure dopey fun, you have chosen the wrong game. But if you can just unplug the part of your brain that keeps you from having a conversation with your toaster, Gamma World is easy to play and a goofy good time.


Silly good times
Easy to learn and play
Wicked cool art
Lots of extras in a great boxed set

Completely absurd, which is only a con if you're not a fan of absurdity
Collectible cards make Baby Jesus cry

OK, here's the deal. Noble Knight Games sends me products to review. Without them, I never could have reviewed this game, for instance. But this whole thing only works if they see a little payback for it, so if you want to support Drake's Flames, you don't need to send money or go chasing click-throughs. All you have to do is, if you're going to buy Gamma World, go buy it from them:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Event Review - Alcohol Training

You probably know someone who has a lot of stories that start with, 'We were so wasted!' (if you know me, then you definitely do). I have some crazy drunk-man stories from my youth that include drunken brawls, wild strippers and waking up in a bathtub. We even had the paramedics come out one time. Ah, to be a kid again. Given the chance to do it all over, I would definitely not do all that stuff.

But with all my incredible tales of alcohol-fueled stupidity, not one ever included police watching over us and driving us home. Any time our stories did include police, it was generally because the party had reached critical mass and the neighbors were complaining. That, or someone was outside naked.

All that changed last weekend, when I was invited to participate in alcohol training. See, the local police academy has to teach cadets how to perform field sobriety tests and spot drunk people, and to do that, they need real live drunks. Obviously, it was important for me to do my civic duty and help out my local police force.

What followed was one of the greatest parties I have ever attended.

A police cadet met us at my house and drove us to the training center. It seems that after the police get you drunk, they would rather you did not drive home. So our cadet friend was our designated driver. The rest of us were designated drinkers. Really, that's what the instructors called us for the rest of the evening - drinkers. Nice of them not to call us drunks, if you ask me.

We were given a choice of poison at the door. Sadly, the only beer available was Coors Light, and I would almost rather drink my own urine than a Coors Light, so I decided I would be drinking whiskey. Which, also sadly, was Crown Royal. Still better than Coors Light, though.

The head cop told us that we would be asked to drink four drinks in the next two hours, with pizza halfway through. I scoffed initially - four shots of whiskey is how I get through Christmas morning. But when they poured the first glass into a little plastic cup, and it was at least three fingers deep, my scoffing turned into mild panic. Four glasses like this were a sure indicator of a powerful hangover, and a potentially felonious evening.

I very seldom get drunk at all any more. One thing I learned from years of consumption is that when you put 26 drunks in one place, you're virtually guaranteed to see someone lose a tooth. But when the police are monitoring your alcohol intake and strictly cutting off everyone as soon as they are thoroughly smashed, you avoid that part of the night when everyone slides into 'mean drunk' mode. And when you know that taking a swing - even a sloshed 'didn't mean it' half-punch - is likely to get you slide-tackled and handcuffed, you're all likely to be a jolly band of drunks.

Having a half dozen police officers watching over you as you slide rapidly into inebriation has a very calming effect on a party. We still laughed too loud, yelled happily at people only three feet away, danced to very loud music and otherwise carried on like a bunch of hammered frat boys. By the time they served me that last huge glass of Crown, I was completely sideways. But where the potential for idiotic bloodshed would normally be about DEFCON 4, all those police just made sure we had a good time. All we really needed was babysitters!

After two hours of revelry and a whole hell of a lot of booze, it was time for the testing. I figured the party was winding down, which was a shame because I was just getting started. I could have been rowdy and stupid for at least another two hours, but now I had to pretend I was sober and try to convince the cadets that I was safe to drive. But the testing was nearly as much fun as the drinking, as we joked and laughed and rode our buzzes for another hour and a half.

The cadets were very good sports. I know I was irritating. I had to be. I don't really remember anything I said, exactly, though I do know I was able to do my ABCs backwards. I also remember that, when they told me to tilt my head back and close my eyes, I told one of the cadets to stand behind me, because I was virtually certain to fall down. When one group asked if I would do some tests for them, I remember saying something like, 'maybe we could just skip to the part where you put handcuffs on me and let me sleep in the back of your squad car?'

The ride home was jolly, rowdy and fun, though I doubt that our cadet friend had as much fun as I did. I was in a terrific mood, but then, I was completely trashed. I went home and ate another half a pizza, drank two gallons of water, and went to bed.

As much fun as I had, I don't know that I would do it again. It was a fantastic party, and I had a blast, but that morning I woke up in some serious pain. I hate to think how much it would have hurt if I hadn't instinctively slammed a couple milk jugs of water (a lesson learned most painfully from a misspent youth). I still slept until almost noon (though for most of it, I was not sleeping, I was passed out. There is most certainly a difference, as any seasoned drunk can attest), and then woke up with a hankering for greasy food and Ibuprofen.

Alcohol training is the kind of thing I recommend you do at least once. If you're a real fan of drinking heavily, it's a cheap way to get a killer buzz, and the cops keep all the stupid to a minimum. It's safe and fun and free - but you'll pay for it in the morning.


Get trashed for free
Cops keep you safe while you get hammered
Good clean fun
About the only time the police will thank you for getting drunk

Really crappy booze selection
The hangover might be a bitch

If you want to know more about alcohol training... good luck. I only found out about it because my friend knows a cadet. But it's worth investigating, if you're a fan of the devil's drink.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Some Kind of Game Review - What's My Word?

When I was a kid, I used to love playing a game called Mastermind. It was essentially a logic puzzle, where one person arranges colored pegs behind a screen and the other player makes guesses with colored pegs, and the first player put black and white pegs into holes to tell the second guy which color pegs are right and wrong. There were lots of pegs, I can tell you that. It took five to ten minutes to play a game, and then we would switch sides and try again. My biggest problem was finding someone to play with me, because to my complete surprise, a shockingly low number of ten-year-olds want to do logic puzzles when they could be digging in a sandbox to find raccoon turds.

Then last week I got a game called What's My Word?, and it looked an awful lot like Mastermind, only instead of colored pegs, you used words, and instead of five minutes, it will take you half an hour, and instead of being a pretty simple game if you can use your head, it makes your mind sweat until you pop a blood clot. You don't have to be particularly good with words. You just have to be really, really smart.

The game consists completely of two binders full of scoring sheets. You each come up with a six-letter word and hide it under your screen, then take turns using words to try to guess the letters in your opponent's word. You use logic and a little creativity to work through letters and words, and after a little while, you stop because you need a Midol for the skull pain.

The rules are incredibly simple - say your word, write it down, and score points based on whether you have the right letters, and whether they're in the right place. Since you can win even if you don't guess your opponent's word, smart play isn't always the move that gets you closer to the answer. But simple rules don't mean a simple game, and if you're not ready for some serious mental calisthenics, you may not be smart enough for this game.

The reason this is so much harder than Mastermind is because where Mastermind had just a handful of colors, there are 26 letters in the alphabet, and you're going to need to find just six of them that work. Then there's the fact that in order to guess, you actually have to come up with a word. No fair guessing 'imprgh' just because you know the I, M and P are in the right place. You'll sit studying your sheet for two or three minutes, brow furrowed in concentration as you try to find a word that uses V, B and N, with A as the second letter, just because you're trying to eliminate V and you know your word has B and N in there somewhere.

I loved What's My Word?. I like logic puzzles, and I like word games, so this was a blast. But if you don't particularly care for the kinds of intellectual fat-burning exercises that make your cerebral cortex melt into a bowl of noodle soup, it's not going to appeal to you at all. On the other hand, it's very likely to appeal to non-gamers who just like word games. You know, like your grandma who blows through the New York Times crossword every morning but still can't figure out DVR Matlock.

So now that I'm grown up, the only problem I have with What's My Word? is finding someone to play with me. Cruel fate has deemed that, like most children, adults are rarely interested in flame-broiling their brains when they could just let them reduce to a jello-like mush by watching reality television.


Seriously fun mental gymnastics
Creative and smart at the same time
Rules are easy to understand

Holy sweet Mother of Pearl, this is hard

I can't find pictures of the box for this game, and I can't find anyone selling it. Check out the Eagle Games site, and see if you can find it there:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Board Game Review - Venture

I'm not in the habit of reviewing PDF products. For one thing, my printer blows through ink like a crack-head with an eight-ball, and nearly anything you download as a PDF is going to require like fifty pages, which means by the end, my printer will be spitting out blank pages. So I suppose I could take it to Kinkos, but then you still have to put it all together afterward, and now any savings you were hoping to score for buying an electronic game are chewed up in glue sticks and printing expenses. Plus, if your time is worth more than four bucks an hour, PDF games usually set you back a couple hundred dollars in lost wages.

But then I saw Venture, and I knew that I was going to have to ask for a review copy, even though it was just going to be a download link. Hell, it's a dungeon crawl, and you can almost always sell me a dungeon crawl, even if I have to put the bastard together myself. Plus the art really sells it. Call me a snob if you want, but when a game has good art, it tells me that the publisher has put some effort into his product. Sure, there are ugly games that are fun, and pretty games that suck, but I like to think of those as statistical outliers. And when a game is a dungeon crawl, the art is especially important, because good art sells a theme better than the rules ever can.

So I bit the bullet, got a copy of Venture, and printed it out. Then I built it. This was not a simple process, as there are what seems to be a completely unnecessary number of paper figures to assemble. I mean there are lots and lots of them. Which is cool, I guess, but after a while, you start to wonder if you're ever really going to need a dozen orcs. Most of the rooms aren't even big enough to hold that many. But I soldiered through and finished. I mounted the boards on foam core, and glued all the doors and figures together, and cut out all the cards and stuck them in sleeves. There's even a nice, big piece of cover art that you can put on a box to hold all this stuff (I bought a jigsaw puzzle at a thrift store, threw out the puzzle, and redecorated the box. It works great, but my garbage man probably thinks I totally suck at jigsaw puzzles).

When the game was assembled, I was quite impressed with what I had built. The figures are pretty darn nice, for being paper miniatures. The boards are attractive and easy to play. The doors are cool, the cardstock furniture is swanky, and the cards all have pretty slick art. The rules are attractive, too, and they make sense right out of the gate. Combat and movement are simple, and most monsters are basically just collections of stats, which makes them pretty simple to set up and knock down.

Which is, at first, exactly what you'll do. Most of the monsters are meant to be slightly more challenging than wet toilet paper. If they get super lucky, they might give you a black eye before they fall, but usually, they're really just there to wear you down a little before things get all gnarly - which they do when you finally find the big bad guy. Because then the mean ol' beastie can actually kill you, and if you're not careful, he does. Even the ogre in the introductory adventure can stomp a mudhole in at least one of the heroes before he goes down.

Venture is not a cooperative game. I would say that the optimal player choice is two people, where one person runs the heroes and the other runs the bad guys. This is basically a HeroQuest clone, so one guy is doing everything he can to murderize a group of heroes, and the other player is tromping around performing unpleasant home invasions and stealing everything that isn't nailed down.

A few elements of Venture were cooler than HeroQuest. For instance, the campaign mode allows players to get the sense that they're improving over time, as opposed to HeroQuest, where you're essentially stuck as first-level goobers and your only improvements are better weapons. Also, Venture's rooms and corridors open up a lot wider, which does away with the problem I always had in HeroQuest, where the barbarian can't get to the gargoyle because the dwarf is in the way, and the wizard is stuck next to the chaos knight because the elf has him boxed in. There's a lot more room to maneuver in Venture, which I personally find exceptionally refreshing.

I also really liked the way the heroes get treasure, and how the bad guys get more powerful if the heroes dick around too much. Every now and then, the monster player will get to draw a card from the 'sweet powers for evil' deck, and this happens even more if the heroes drag their feet. Rush right for the bad guy, and you miss out on all the good treasure, but explore every corner, and the end boss is likely to get too tough to beat.

Unfortunately, as pretty as my Venture game is now, it's still got nothing on the visual appeal of HeroQuest. I love those little plastic miniatures, and the dungeon decorations really add flavor, even if they do clutter up the board even more. Plus it's a lot easier to run a battle using plastic figures, because the paper minis have a tendency to scatter every time someone at the table exhales loudly. So if you buy Venture, consider not assembling the miniatures at all, and just use some D&D prepaints.

Venture comes with enough adventures to keep you busy for a while, but if you like the game, you're going to run out eventually. But there's good news - the publisher has several free adventures available at the site, and even better, they've got an actual expansion cooking. Personally, I'm looking forward to it, and plan to buy it when it's available, and I plan to play all the free scenarios while I wait.

Venture still has one huge hurdle to jump - you have to build it if you want it. I would be thrilled to pay a lot more for the same game full of plastic miniatures and premounted playing boards, but that's not likely to happen. There's a small company who will build you the game for another $65, but it's still not the same as having figures instead of paper standups. Still, if a download is the only way to get this easy-but-entertaining dungeon crawler, I'll suck it up and drain my printer.

I just have to wait until payday. Ink cartridges aren't free.


2-5 players... but 2 is best

Super easy rules
Still enough depth and dungeon crawl to be entertaining
Very cool art
Well supported with a good amount of expansion material

You have to print it yourself - and then you have to build it
Paper minis are a pain in my ass

If you like dungeon crawl games, you're probably going to dig the hell out of Venture. If you're cool with building it yourself, you really should run over and get yourself a copy:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Board Game Review - Crossroads at Dark Lion Pass

I've talked with game designers who are so attached to their projects, it's like the games are their babies. This can be good, because it means designers really take the time to turn their ugly, fat, bawling pile of diaper filler into a useful member of society. And it can be bad, when 'parents' turn a child who might have become an exemplary model of behavior into a disrespectful teenager, who then goes on to spend most of his life in prison.

This thought occurred to me when I was playing Crossroads at Dark Lion Pass, though I keep having to go back and remind myself what the damned thing is called. Couldn't give it a catchy title, could you? No, you have to go and name your kid something as ridiculous as A'paul-o or Vulva. Seriously, I've seen both of those. The kids are practically destined to come out warped.

And the reason I thought of bad game designers screwing up perfectly good youngsters is because Crossroads at... whatever the hell it is... shows a whole lot of promise. It scored pretty well on the standardized tests, and was able to memorize the entire monologue for the Christmas play. But then the game designer screwed it up, and now the kid is bouncing between military schools and playing with matches.

The idea of Crossroads is that you have a team of adventurers moving through the countryside and overcoming obstacles to finish the big quest. Players will take on the roles of those characters as they battle brutally ugly monsters and win oddly pointless treasure. The player with the most experience at the end of the game is the winner. Since I very much enjoy adventure games, this shows a lot of promise.

But there are so many things the designer did wrong. Starting with the art and proceeding to the ludicrously messy arithmetic (but not ending there), this promising and potentially entertaining game ended up smoking weed and hanging out behind the gas station on school nights. Even worse, the fun parts of the game are buried underneath laughably horrible art and staggering piles of completely unnecessary math.

The ideas are so good. You'll compete for the experience you need to advance, with players gaining more points for doing more damage. The first few monsters will probably kick your asses, but eventually you'll learn enough to face down the meanest boogers with little more than a scratch. By the end of the game, you'll be juggernauts of violent power, with magic weapons and incredible abilities and powerful card combinations. So far, Little Johnny is practically an honor student.

One moderately neat feature is that you won't automatically play the same guy every time. Each time you start a quest, you'll bid for the chance to pick the character you want. If you've spent all your experience buffing out the fighter and someone grabs him first, you might find yourself with a really weak bard as your only option (let's face it, bards are like leftover D&D characters). You may have to balance your character growth to have a good chance with all the characters.

There's an awesome card management system where you try to get good combos, and you have to discard some cards to move the party forward. This works pretty well, and has you trying to decide between one more step towards the goal versus the healing spell you need to stay alive for a few more fights. You'll need to maximize one color card, but you have to be careful because that can backfire if you wind up playing the wizard when you have all the cards for the thief. Little Johnny looks like he might just graduate sixth grade, after all.

But when you introduce the ridiculous experience system, Johnny starts shooting heroin and selling stolen car stereos out of a van. First, monsters have hit points based on the number of players, like 14 per player. So if there are four players, just multiply 14 by 4. If there are 6, it's 14 times 6. I could tell you what that is, but I don't have a calculator handy (that's a lie. I'm on a computer. I just don't feel like looking it up). Then every point of damage you do earns you 10 experience points, which means if you do 22 points of damage, you get 220 points (I can multiply by 10 just fine) and then subtract those 22 from the monster's total, which is whatever you got when did that multiplying from before. You'll need to be writing this down.

To really get Johnny hooked on cheap whores, you need 100 points to get a level, and if you have less than 100 leftover, you just record it in the little box on your disposable character sheet. So now you have pen-and-paper accounting in a game about killing stuff. Happily, you can use the back side of this sheet to keep track of the monster's life, which is great because you'll need some place to do all the irritating amounts of math that you probably can't manage in your head.

And then it gets really bad when the alternating character system falls apart. It's a cool concept, but eventually, people are going to dump their points and focus their cards into particular characters. If you do this, everyone else would be wise to do the same, and then you're all basically playing the same guys for the whole game anyway. The whole character-swapping system is almost entirely ruined because the smartest way to play is to do away with it in the first place.

The movement mechanic seems like it should be pretty cool, with players trying to steer the movement to get experience for their own characters, but it ends up feeling a little silly. You just play out this pointless dot-to-dot exercise, and nothing happens until you get to a quest. If this were a cooperative game, players would be steering towards the places that benefit the group, and actually having to make some tough calls after a little discussion. Instead, some people just get hosed. Better break out the bail money - Johnny is hot-wiring cars again.

As if the rest of this sloppy, underdeveloped game weren't bad enough already, the graphic designer for this game must have been completely blind. The art, for lack of a better word, is completely horrible. Some of it is crudely drawn on a computer, and the rest is cribbed right out of clip art collections and manipulated to be more ugly. Seriously. I'm not making that up. In more than one case, they would have been better off just using the picture they got in the first place, and not messing with it. Pictures are stretched, filtered, poorly clipped and otherwise mutilated. The image for the Back Stab card shows a naked man coming uncomfortably close to a horse's behind. Now Johnny appears to be sexually assaulting the neighbor's pets.

The end result of all the bad decisions that went into Crossroads at Dark Lion Pass is a game that is barely enjoyable, and almost unplayable. You can see the promise this game had at the start, but it crumbles to cigarette ashes at the club-fisted hands of the designer who thought he was finishing it. I would hate to have my name attached to anything related to this game, outside of a review telling you not to buy it, and I can promise you I won't be playing it again. I'm not a big fan of recalcitrant youths in real life, and games that make me think of teenage burnouts are definitely on my 'to be avoided' list.

With a little luck, this game will go to prison and find Jesus. Then it can come out and be a productive member of society. It will need a mentor to guide it, groom it, and for God's sake, get rid of all that clumsy math.


2-6 players

So much promise
Neat premise

Hilariously awful visuals
Buckets of needless math
Disposable accounting ledgers double as character sheets
Steals from convenience stores and swears at nuns

Here's a warning. Keep your kids off drugs, and don't let them play Crossroads at Dark Lion Pass, or they might turn out like this: